Thousand Year Storm
How flood waters united the community and turned all of us into first responders
Article by Michael DeVault | photos by Gaeb Cardinale
Rain had been in the forecast for days, and by all accounts leading up to the storm, this spring shower was going to be a whopper. By the time the first drops fell in the late night hours of March 8 and into the morning of March 9, it became increasingly clear that the direst predictions had been wrong by a factor of at least double.
Across Ouachita Parish, first responders went on high alert. Water was expected to rise quickly in low-lying areas, and no area, no demographic would be immune. Tanglewood subdivision, Monroe’s historic Garden District, and River Oaks were all told to prepare for the worst. A flood was coming, and there wasn’t much the region could do to stop it.
Fresh off his victory in the City Council elections just a few days before, Michael Echols hopped in his car and set out into the community. “When I first realized we had a pretty bad situation, right after that first, big rain, I wanted to go out in my district and see where we had flooding problems,” Echols said. The weather had subsided, at least momentarily, and he could see areas where flood control measures seemed to be working and areas where the infrastructure might be improved. Along Hogg Bayou in the River Oaks subdivision, he watched as a torrent of water flowed over the road. It wasn’t an unusual sight, considering that Hogg Bayou is one of the major drainage conduits in Chauvin Basin, the miles wide floodplain through which much of the parish drains into the Ouachita River. Within just a few minutes, he noticed something disturbing. In spite of a lull in the rain, the water was still rising. “I realized right then that this flood was a little different than normal flooding.”
Over the next 24 hours, the storm system that dealt that first blow stalled out. Instead of moving into Mississippi and the Tennessee River Valley, the clouds hunkered down over Louisiana, dumping time and again multiple inches of rain. By the time the clouds parted, the area had seen more than 21” of rain. Some sites in Ouachita Parish recorded in excess of 24” of precipitation. By any standard, this flood rivaled previous flooding in 1991 and conjured images of Ronald Reagan in an Army Jeep on U.S. 165 North in 1984. In meteorological terms, this marked an extraordinary rain event. They call it a 1,000-year storm.
Donna Branson’s Garden District home was among the first to take on water, with the rains encroaching two rooms early Tuesday. At first, she and her family were able to beat the water back with towels and wet-vacs. Wednesday morning, she went to work, believing that the worst was behind them. After all, they were on the higher end of K Street, and their home had never experienced flooding. That changed by lunchtime Wednesday.
“My husband called me at work and said to come home immediately,” Branson said. For the next few hours, they worked with family and friends to push back the water. They had a lot at stake. Only recently, the Bransons had completed a major remodel of their home, floor-to-ceiling work had been completed. Only a few months before had they finished work and put the house back together. Now, they were fighting to save it. Around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night, the situation changed. Water began to rush into the house faster than they could respond. Almost immediately, Branson and her family realized it was time to go.
“It was like we lost the war that we’d been fighting and fighting for a couple of days,” she said. They grabbed what possessions they could and filled the family cars. Branson figures they got out just in time to save the vehicles from the fate of the house.
Branson’s story is anything but unique. Across the parish, every community, every neighborhood was affected. Residents sprang into action to help neighbors sandbag until it became clear sandbagging wasn’t enough. They helped evacuate those who couldn’t get out themselves. They sheltered friends and strangers suddenly rendered homeless by Mother Nature. River Oaks resident Taylor Hubenthal was at Ground Zero for some of the worst of the early flooding. His home lies on the high side of Deborah Drive, across the railroad tracks from Hogg Bayou.
Over the course of the week, Hubenthal witnessed a remarkable response as neighbors came together to sandbag the levee, shore up weak spots, and help evacuate people and property from flooding areas. He noticed people he’d never met before, some from West Monroe, some from Sterlington, and even some who had been flooded out of their own homes. Even a number of city workers not tasked to Public Works were on hand to help in any way they could.
“There are certainly a lot of people around town who are unrecognized heroes. They definitely deserve some recognition,” Hubenthal said. In spite of the obstacles, the town came together. In those early moments, everyone was a first-responder. “There were a lot of volunteers around River Oaks, people who I’d never seen, trying to build the wall to keep the water out.”
Echols assesses it similarly. He not only saw teamwork between diverse respondents from area governments, whether the individuals were with Public Works or the Police and Fire Departments. Everybody joined the team. “The citizens really stepped up,” he said. “What was even more impressive was the community really stepped up both locally and nationally.”
West Monroe fared little better. Within hours, water was encroaching on West Monroe High School. Homes near the high school had already taken on water, and as the rains continued, the water flowed into the school, across Cypress Street, and into buildings across central West Monroe. Similar scenes repeated themselves across the region. Tanglewood Subdivision, a frequent victim of flooding, went under quickly. Not too long after, water rose on areas of north Monroe normally immune to high water. In Frenchman’s Bend, dozens of homes took on water. By the end of the second day, access to Treasure Island was being limited, and raging waters in Black Bayou threatened to top the bridge to the neighborhood.
Yet what seemed like an endless torrent of water eventually stopped falling, giving first responders and would-be heroes a moment to catch up, to get just a little ahead with sandbagging and evacuations, and to consider what would come next. Those were precious moments, and no one wasted them. Builder and artist Lissy Compton knew one of the first things people would need after the rains stopped was financial and material assistance. Thousands of people were homeless, at least temporarily, and they needed food, clothing and shelter, all of which costs money. Compton and her husband, Brent, own Mr. P’s Tees, a local tee-shirt company. Wanting to chip in as much as she could, Compton designed a tee-shirt, the proceeds of which would go to support flood relief efforts.
The design was of a deer, wearing hip waders and holding sandbags. She wasn’t sure how many she would be able to sell, but she understood every dollar would help. “We did it in a matter of less than 24 hours. We got the design drawn, sent to the designer and then put it out for pre-orders,” Compton said. What happened next is nothing short of extraordinary.
Within six days, they fielded orders for more than 2,100 shirts. Demand was extraordinary, and by the end of the shirt’s first week, they raised $35,782.52. Compton states the precise amount slowly, as if to underscore just how surprised she was with the outcome. Now armed with cash-in-hand, she knew what came next. “We donated that money back to First West, through their flood relief community outreach program,” Compton said. “It felt like that was the best way to keep the money in Ouachita Parish.”
Compton’s aid went beyond just the tee-shirt. When she and her husband heard that the thrift shop at First West was providing clothing, free-of-charge, to individuals and families affected by the flood, they donated more than 550 shirts left over from last year’s stock of Mr. P’s. Now, people had a source for new shirts that fit. “I think it was just a God thing, because it all happened so easy,” Compton said. “The design came quick, and then everything else just fell into place.”
Her story is repeated again and again, as individuals did whatever little or however much they could to aid victims of the flood. Frenchman’s Bend resident Emma Loyless and her husband watched the waters rising and, for a time, were worried that their home might be overtaken. When it became apparent that their home would be spared, her husband set out to assist sandbagging operations and relocations. He was among the first volunteers on hand at Parkwood Apartments in West Monroe, which took flood waters almost to the ceilings of the first floor.
For Loyless, though, she had a small daughter to attend, and getting out and into the waters wasn’t an option. Instead, Loyless knew there was another way she could contribute. The men and women out in the waters fighting back flooding or helping residents evacuate still had to eat. “We got together a group from our church on several occasions,” Loyless said. “We put together sandwich bags for the workers during the day.”
In the evenings, members of the church unaffected by the floods prepared dinners and hosted relief volunteers in their homes. That way, Loyless said, they didn’t have to worry about where to find dinner or what they would be eating after working all day. Loyless was thankful their home was spared, but she also understood how her blessing could be a blessing to someone else. “It helped us be able to focus on others and to help those who had taken on water,” she said.
While government and private relief aid was just beginning to flow, one of the most valuable resources became the United Way’s 211 information system. As with previous major weather events, such as 2008’s Hurricane Gustav, and the parish-wide emergency response during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, 211 became a vital go-to for up-to-the-minute information, a conduit for relief work, and even played a role in securing the region one of the most rapid federal disaster declarations on record.
United Way CEO Janet Durden marshalled the United Way’s resources almost immediately and very quickly the organization filled an indispensable role. Durden is quick to give praise to those responders who were on hand from the first moment, too. “I think it’s important to acknowledge and recognize that the response from our community has been the whole community,” she said. “It’s been the non-profit community, the governmental community, and the faith community from day one.”
As with previous events, she saw the United Way’s immediate role as a major resource for information–to connect and communicate, as she puts it. To that end, the United Way’s 211 service fielded more than 22,000 contacts from March 9 through the end of the month, one of the busiest periods in history. “That’s ongoing,” she added. “We’re still involved in flood response.”
During that period, the organization answered more than 7,400 live phone calls, providing callers with much-needed information on road and school closures, connecting victims with assistance for food, clothing and housing, and providing guidance on how to respond to water in their homes. At the same time, the 211 system became one of the central repositories by which affected residents could lodge damage reports for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, or GOSHEP. When affected residents called in, they left voicemails chronicling the damage. Those damage reports were compiled, passed to GOSHEP, which then in turn passed the reports onto FEMA. “That immediate assessment of the property damage enabled our community to receive the federal declaration. sooner than we would have otherwise,” Durden said.
The 211 role is ongoing, too, as Durden noted many residents have been denied FEMA assistance. “We’re urging people to appeal,” she said, adding that those affected also need to explore other federal aid programs. “We’re urging them to apply for SBA, too, because they need to take advantage of all of the resources available from the federal government.”
A robocall soon followed, urging residents to apply for FEMA aid. It was a rare occurrence for 211, which almost never places such outward-bound calls. “We were really, really trying to communicate strongly that it was important for them to apply for FEMA aid,” Durden said. The deadline to apply for assistance is May 12.
The United Way’s information role continues now, more than a month after the rains that triggered the flooding. Not only are operators delivering valuable information about aid available, they’re dispensing cleanup and decontamination advice. “There is a great deal of concern that people have moved too quickly and not successfully eradicated all the mold,” Durden said. Also, the United Way continues to publish an up-to-date list of resources and information on its web site, the Daily Bulletin, which can be found at www.unitedwaynela.org/dailybulletin.
And, the organization is continuing to raise funds to assist with the flood response. So far, they’ve collected some $300,000 for flood response. Right now, that money is being used to cover immediate needs, from diapers and baby wipes to disaster food boxes. The need can be as simple as a bookbag for a student, which the organization identified early on as a major area of need. “Anybody who needed a bookbag, we were able to secure a donation or use the fund,” Durden said.
“We know we’re going to need significantly more to meet all the needs that are coming in the months ahead,” Durden said.